COUNCIL chiefs have been ordered to open up their books in order to prove that motorists aren’t being fleeced by sky-high parking fees.

A committee of MPs warns today that the public increasingly believes money-starved town halls are using drivers as a "cash cow", by hiking charges and fines.

And it says the only solution is for all councils to publish an annual parking report - to lay bare whether they are making a profit.

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The call, by the Commons Transport Committee, comes a day after The Northern Echo revealed that North Yorkshire County Council has drawn up a plan to introduce parking fees in the centre of market towns, starting with Northallerton.

Just weeks ago, it was revealed that councils in the region will scoop almost £25m in parking fees, in 2013-14.

Durham County Council has predicted its surplus - after costs - will be £554,000, up from just £58,000 in 2012-13.

York (up £598,000), South Tyneside (up £252,000) and Newcastle (up £278,000) are also predicting soaring net income from charges and fines this year.

Darlington is among authorities expecting its surplus will fall in 2013-14 - but it is still on course to pocket £1.33m, after costs.

The figures are the total income from all parking charges and fines, minus the cost of administering the service and of parking patrols.

In the summer, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles tore into local authorities that enjoy huge "profits" from charges and fines.

Now the Labour-led transport committee has backed that stance, arguing it is "illegal" for councils to use parking charges and fines to raise revenue.

Louise Ellman, the committee's chairwoman, said: "There is a deep-rooted public perception that parking enforcement is used as a cash cow, so it's essential that local authorities apply stringent transparency.

"Annual parking accounts would allow the public to see how much local revenue is derived from the enforcement of fines - and what proportion comes from on or off street parking charges."

Less than one third of local authorities outside London currently put out an annual report, Ms Ellman said.

Darlington shop owner Beryl Hankin, who campaigns on parking policy said she would welcome a move to force councils to reveal the money they make from parking fines.

"I think it would be a good idea, but I think that as well as telling us how much they have raised, they should also tell us where the money has been spent," she said."

Today's report also calls for: *Parking fines not to "substantially exceed" speeding penalties - which are currently £100.

*Lower fines for less serious parking violations.

*A 'grace period' of five minutes before a penalty charge is imposed for overstaying in a parking space.

*A 25 per cent discount for motorists who pay within seven days of losing any appeal to a parking tribunal.

*A new requirement for councils to refund motorists caught out after tribunal adjudicators have repeatedly identified "poor signage".

*Appeals to be allowed where councils have failed to follow guidance on the use of cameras.

*Possible business rates relief for firms that create affordable parking spaces in town centres.

Councillor Peter Box, chairman of the Local Government Association’s economy and transport board, said: "As this report recognises, parking controls are not being used by councils to raise revenue. They are essential for keeping motorists and pedestrians safe, traffic flowing and ensure people can park near their homes and local shops.

"Councils always look to be open and transparent with residents on their parking policies. Many already publish annual reports."